Have you ever watched a group of children play together, as they organize themselves while they determine what to play and who plays what role? I’m pretty fascinated by group dynamics, and love to watch groups of people; adult, children, and in between; interact and make decisions.
We played a lot of kickball when I attended Jefferson Elementary School. For those familiar with Tipton, Indiana; Jefferson Elementary was initially named First Ward, and is was later torn down and re-built as the site of the C.W. Mount Center which houses the Boys and Girls Club.
It had a great playground behind the school, which included pavement for dodgeball, basketball, and 4square, and a grassy field for kickball with swings at the far end. There was a second grassy area on the other side of the pavement, where there were bars for gymnastic work or pull-ups, and a tether ball.
On days that we played kickball, we divided ourselves into two teams. The captains picked their teammates and we played during our recesses (of which we had two per day; one in the morning, and one directly after lunch).
I can remember learning to kick the ball away from 1st base toward 3rd base but not too close, as I was fairly small (as in slim and weak-ish) and not that great at kicking or fast at running. I would then book it as fast as I could around the bases trying not to get ‘out’.
We had ‘soak outs’, which occurs when the person fielding the ball throws it at you to get you out. We had to be continuously aware of a potential ball hitting us as we ran the bases. There was lots of trash talk, teams of kids yelling for their teammates to move up or back depending on the strength and speed of the kicker, and lots of fun was had overall, generally.
What I liked even better than kickball during recess was 4-Square. 4-Square (no, not the app), is played in a square which is divided into four equal squares (hence the name). The squares are labeled 1-4 and were located on the paved part of the playground. To play, the person in the number 1 square bounced the ball into one of the other squares, and the other player hit it back and bounced it into someone else’s square. This went on until the ball went out of the square or double bounced before someone was able to hit it back.
The skills needed to succeed at 4-Square included much less running and more hand-eye coordination and rhythm, which were more my speed. As long as you bounced the ball without error into someone else’s box, you stayed in the game and could eventually lead from the number 1 spot. This game probably helped prepare me for Volleyball and Tennis, which I played as a teenager.
These were child led activities, back in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. Our playground had one recess attendant, who probably, if I were to guess, kept their eyes mostly on kids who tended to really struggle with following rules and left the rest of us alone. They watched for rule infringements and tried to keep warm on cold, winter, Indiana days. If you got into trouble at recess you had to stand against the wall, therefore incorporating shame in keeping the child away from interacting with others.
We played after school as well, particularly those of us who lived in town and didn’t have to rely on parents to drive us to a shared activity. Most of us had to go home when the church bells rang at 5pm. There were a couple of local churches with great yards, so we tended to congregate there if we played organized activities. I’m from a small town, and my elementary school was right in the heart of the town. A busy street (Jefferson St or Highway 28) was the boundary for our school, so we could get around on bikes or on foot without crossing busy streets fairly easily.
I love to play, even now, so recess and playing with friends was one of my favorite parts of the day.
I talked with one of my childhood friends recently, and we reminisced about different things we did during recess and hanging out as friends. We discussed how children of that time period had a lot of unstructured time. We led each other, and bullying was a term reserved for kids who were fairly abusive in their negotiating tactics. My guess is that the children who tended to bully were not treated as well at home as I would hope a child would be, and mimicked some interactions they had with some of their own family members.
My friend Cara and I spent a lot of time together, particularly during 4th and 5th grades, and remember how, as groups of kids, we negotiated for leadership in deciding what activity we did during recess. Some days we wanted to play as an organized group, and other days we played in smaller groups. As we talked, we shared some memories of playing together at recess, at each other’s houses, and after school.
The picture at the beginning of this article is of a group of us making a totem pole, which we frequently did at sleepovers. I am the one at the bottom, as I was relatively tall for my age compared to some others, and she is at the top. In between are our friends including her twin sister Sara, Wendy and Stacy. We are on Cara’s back porch, and their little brother is perfect porch height and grinning at being included. Cara and I look a little tired and cranky, so my guess is we were less enthusiastic about the totem pole picture than the other three, and especially Kurt.
Negotiating for who determined what we were playing, or who was the captain of kickball that day, or whether we played jumprope, tether ball, on the bars doing gymnastics, or whether we swung on the swings; depended on the day. All of us had friends that we were better or worse friends with, so allegiances changed as some of those friendships changed and evolved over weeks and months (or days…or hours).
Sometimes we played with boys and girls together, and sometimes we played more separately. All of us learned leadership skills, as we learned to coax our friends into playing what each of us wanted to each day, so we got better at bartering and bargaining for power and position. We recruited people to “be on our side”, which included things like “lets go for a bike ride first, then we can play SPUD” or “I want to play Chinese jump rope, so if you’ll play with me, we’ll do what you want later”.
To lead effectively, someone has to get people to follow. We have to motivate others and encourage them to do what we like, and be willing to speak up and not always get our own way. We learned to align with each other to get numbers, and we all had personal preferences of what games we liked the best as well as personal history of how we felt about leading and being led.
We weren’t led by adults, as the adults were there to monitor us for safety.
She remembers that sometimes the adult at the playground chose who was the captain for kickball. She’s naturally much more athletic than I was or am, and my guess is that she was chosen earlier in the school yard picking process and may even have been captain at some points.
I remember that it was a boy who was generally captain, or at least not me, and that boys were typically chosen first. Sometimes we (our group of friends who were girls) wanted to play, and sometimes we wouldn’t play because we got irritated at not being chosen as early. The boys who loved kickball the most recognized they needed to field the team, so they spent some time recruiting us on days when their numbers were low and they’d have to chase the ball as it went through holes in the field.
This was when Title IX was first starting, so we had ‘After School Sports’ for girls a couple of days a week, and of course had some really athletic girls.
I loved playing sports as a child and still love to be active. Gender roles were viewed a little differently during the late 70’s/80’s era than they are today. Kickball takes a lot of people, so sometimes we, as in my closer group of friends, negotiated whether or not we were willing to play that vs. something else that day. In terms of playground activities, girls tended to play all of the activities as I remember, and the boys tended to play kickball, dodgeball, swings, or basketball. I would say, at the time I went to elementary school, it was a little easier to be a girl who liked sports than a boy who did not.
I talked with one of my 22 year old sons today about how they choose teams for pick-up basketball. He also loves to play and be active, and frequently has a hand in organizing groups of people to interact physically.
He loves a pick-up basketball game, and we discussed how interactions frequently work with his friends.
With texting, checking in with a group of friends can be quite simple and easy. At one point, when he was in high school and early college, he had a group text specifically for getting together and playing basketball at a local court that had lights. I’m sure they discussed all kinds of things, but suddenly he would announce he was leaving, or planning to leave, based on a text he received due to wanting to play. They had to wait until enough people committed, so he’d be talking about it for a long time sometimes, and other times he didn’t mention going until the last minute.
I asked him today how they pick their teams, and he told me that they shoot the ball for being captain. Whoever makes the first two shots are the two captains. They always pick the Team Captains by merit, which is a definite change from the pattern of who picked teams for our kickball teams. My guess is each generation, mine being Generation X and him being a part of Generation Z or the iGeneration, has some norms when it comes to play, leadership, and organizing.
The Greatest Generation/Baby Boomers
My parents are right on the cusp at the end of The Greatest Generation and the beginning of Baby Boomers. I talked with them about their memories of playing with kids, particularly as it relates to leadership.
My dad’s recollection involves groups of kids playing sporting activities. He didn’t mention gender, but my guess is that, even though he had 4 sisters, these groups include mainly boys. He recalls that they got together and determined which groups would be fair for whatever activity they were doing. He is a leader, and remembers working to get the teams set up so that they would be fairly equal and be a competitive, or ‘good’ game. He recalls that he was motivated to play with friends he liked socially or possibly who he thought he would be more likely to win with.
My dad was pretty vertically challenged as a child, and he is also driven to win and succeed. He would have aligned himself with some players who were less vertically challenged would be my guess, while he was scrappy and tough, particularly with his verbal skills.
My mom remembers playing collaboratively. She did not have a memory of who was in charge, other than that her sister always wanted to be the ‘mom’ if they were to play house. She played hopscotch with her cousins, and remembers utilizing the sidewalk rectangles to create edges, and drawing lines to create triangles. My mom is not one to embrace conflict, and enjoys when others get along. She remembers the process of playing, not the conflict.
I find it interesting how kids figure out how to lead and to be led, even at young ages, and how these skills evolve over time.
I have an 8 year old niece, and my friend has a 10 year old niece. We discussed how their play works, from our perception, and who picks their activities.
The niece I’m referring to has been identified as having leadership skills (some might call her bossy) from a very young age. She is strong willed and knows her wants and needs. I was able to speak with her about the game of ‘Family’. We used to call it playing ‘House’.
She explained to me that her friends want her to be the mom, and sometimes it gets very confusing because there are lots of people who want to play, so they can create different families with friends, other families, cousins, etc.
I can remember that I never wanted to be the mom playing ‘House’, because I did not love to play that game and the mom has lots of responsibilities. I think I liked to be ‘sister’, or ‘Aunt’, but frequently had to play ‘Dad’, probably in part because I was relatively tall and someone had to play that role.
The dads, in our version of house, had fewer responsibilities. I enjoy a side conversation and do not always enjoy pretending. I can remember some strong feelings about who got to play each role and bartering and bargaining to play each as we determined our roles during our play..
My niece sighed as she stated that people always want her to be ‘mom’, and she did not have an answer for me when I asked her what they do when someone else wants to be mom as well. Her dad had previously told me that my niece is always the mom. It might be interesting to observe her with a group of like-minded leaders to see how that plays out.
I identify with my niece in many of her strong-willed ways, and she frequently likes to direct me as we play on FaceTime or in-person. If we were the same age, I can imagine both of us locking into position about which activity we wanted to do. I can imagine that we would cajole each other into playing our own versions, or type of games, or even what we were playing, so that we could both enjoy ourselves and influence the other.
My friend’s daughter tends to play collaboratively. She has some friends who try to pressure other kids into doing what they like, which is upsetting to her. When that occurs she may choose to play with someone else, or get upset about what she interprets as unfair due to her desires to play and get along. She works to find common ground with her friends so that they can all get their way. She is nearly 10, so puberty may change some of the ways that she and her friends play together in the coming years.
Children organize themselves into groups, and leaders emerge. Someone has the role of enforcing the rules, someone has a role of gathering people up to get a game organized, somebody or several somebodies want to be in charge, and some people want to be told what to do.
I have noticed, particularly during my 20 years of supervising staff (1998-2018), that people in general want to be led, and they want to be led well.
People tend to like clear rules and boundaries, and knowing clearly what the expectations are. Even people who do not like rules or consequences want to know what the rules are, so that they can determine if the rules are worth following or not.
There are people who have a natural inclination to lead, people who are experts at what they do, and those who can learn to lead. In my opinion, some lead more naturally and successfully than others, and enhancing skills through motivation and training can help most of us get better at anything we do.
In kids, we can watch them work things out through problem solving, ignore things they may not like, have side conversations and remarks that can turn into overthrowing the group, and observe adults intervening which sometimes is needed and sometimes complicates things further.
We can also watch children yell and scream and throw temper tantrums, and try to get their own way. Children are less refined than adults, due to fewer life experiences, but interact in ways to get their own needs met, as we all do.
We’re all just trying to get our needs met
So…I have mentioned in previous articles that I started supervising others when I was 28 years old. I began supervising staff just about 1 year after I gave birth to twins, so I was managing some staff, co-parenting two babies, and still figuring out life as a professional and emerging adult.
Leading doesn’t come from age. Just because someone has life experience or feels it is their turn to lead does not in and of itself give credibility to their leadership ability.
Along the same lines, just because someone is young and has fewer life experiences doesn’t mean that their leadership qualities lack or that their ideas don’t have merit.
Leadership doesn’t come just by having a position.
Effective leadership is encouraging others, motivating them, and accomplishing shared goals. A poor leader, who was put in a position of leadership that may not be a fit for them, may mistakenly think that intimidation, strict adherence to rules, and threats make people cooperate. While their result may be cooperation and an amount of success, this form of leadership may work for some and de-motivate others.
As we think about qualities that we appreciate in leaders, I think it is important to think about how we teach our children as they are showing emerging signs of leading. Leadership can look like a child who doesn’t accept things as they are presented. They may be the child who says, ‘but what if we try it this way’, which can be frustrating, but also can result in some new ways of getting things done. It can be modeling appropriate behavior. It can be convincing their neighbor to come along and play.
As you think about qualities that you like about yourself, and the qualities that you appreciate in those you lead and those you are led by, what are some important qualities that you value? Do you value being told exactly what to do, and the security that comes with that? Do you value a general guideline with room for interpretation? Or somewhere in between?
When you think about how kids, of many different ages, have had a pandemic disrupt their activities, their schoolwork, and their daily interactions; some patterns of encouragement and attention for abilities and lack of abilities have certainly changed in the last couple of months.
A child who excels at sports may depend on that positive attention they get when they play and people watch them. This spring, that has been lacking.
A child who loves to sit and read may have had a great opportunity to do that during the last couple of months, and may have breathed a sigh of relief that activities were fewer.
A child who really struggles to sit still and stay on task may have a teacher who is very skilled at getting that child to cooperate, and a parent who is stressed and less tolerant of fidgeting. Or the opposite.
This has been an opportunity for all of us, at all ages, to sit back, re-evaluate, and establish new patterns whether we like them or not.
I encourage you, as you watch children around you lead and be led, and as you think about leaders you want to associate with and how you lead, to think about ways that are most productive.